Passing years cannot dull Connors' spirit

At 47, the double Wimbledon champion still has the master touch that keeps an audience spellbound

Sometimes it is only when sportsmen grow old and slow down that you can see exactly what it was that they did. Jimmy Connors, the Wimbledon champion of 1974 and 1982, arrived in London this week, and last night he gave a few thousand people in here a master class in the art of controlling a tennis ball.

Sometimes it is only when sportsmen grow old and slow down that you can see exactly what it was that they did. Jimmy Connors, the Wimbledon champion of 1974 and 1982, arrived in London this week, and last night he gave a few thousand people in here a master class in the art of controlling a tennis ball.

At 47, and currently placed fourth - behind Henri Leconte, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander - in the ATP Senior Tour standings, Connors now uses skill and guile to compensate for the reduction of speed and the dulling of instinct. What is not missing is the competitive spirit which took him to victory in 106 of the 163 finals he contested on the men's tour in a 19-year career in the top flight.

In 1995, the readers of Tennis magazine voted Connors the most exciting player of the previous 30 years. He was also placed high in six other categories. These were not specified in the bumph which greeted those who attended the first session of the five-day Honda Challenge, but they might be assumed to include being the best at using nefarious means to break an opponent's concentration, and being the best at denying Ken Rosewall the Wimbledon title that would have crowned his magnificent career.

Not everyone loved Jimbo in his heyday, to say the least. Some saw Arthur Ashe's stealthy dismantling of Connors at the All England Club in 1975 as just retribution for the upstart's wanton destruction of Rosewall the previous year. But the ancient wounds were forgotten last night, particularly since he was scheduled to open the tournament by meeting a British favourite, John Lloyd.

The nostalgic element of this match-up resided in the fact that both men were early suitors for the hand of the young Miss Christine Marie Evert, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, America's tennis sweetheart. Connors courted her first, and they were engaged to be married when they opened the 1974 tournament ball by taking the first dance together, having just won both singles titles. But it was Lloyd who married her, although not for long.

Both men are married to other people now, and last night's rivalry was confined to tennis. Connors, dressed in white, was all sweetness and light, although he made a fearful noise. He was always a grunter, but nowadays he propels a serve with a cry of "Oooyer" that sounds like the Owl of the Remove watching somebody steal his jam doughnuts. He understands the obligation to entertain at these occasions, and is not averse to following a particularly strenuous point by leaning back against the scoreboard and observing, in the stagiest of whispers, "I'm nearly 50, you know", or turning to the crowd, opening his arms in supplication, and pleading: "How much longer?"

The level of humour in these matches is not very elevated, but it hardly needs to be. When someone high up in the velvet-upholstered circle boxes coughed as Lloyd was about to serve, the British player offered his own handkerchief. "Are you all right up there?" Connors inquired. When the American hit a spectacularly weedy volley, he addressed the next serve with the campest of postures. Having chased an angled drive to send it down the line for a sublime winner, he declined to repeat the feat in a similar situation on the next point, but stood his ground and threw his racket across the baseline instead. All these pearls were greeted with general laughter.

Nor could anyone complain about the manners on display. Serving at 4-5 and 15-30, Lloyd overruled a line judge on Connors' scalding backhand pass to give his opponent two break points, from which the American took the first set. A couple of minutes later, defending a third consecutive break point at 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Connors reciprocated by calling a Lloyd shot in and, thereby, forfeiting his own serve, although he went on to take the set 7-5, and with it the match.

But the real spectacle was in the way Connors shaped his shots, something much easier to see now that the speed of the ball is reduced to something close to a level familiar to ordinary mortals. The flat trajectory of his drives off both wings was simply breathtaking. He seemed to be using the air itself as a frictional material against which the ball could be stroked. Lloyd played well, mounting a fine comeback in the second set, but it takes more than that to extinguish the embers of true genius.

There was genius on both sides of the net later in the evening, when Bjorn Borg, 43 years old, winner of five consecutive Wimbledon singles titles, confronted John McEnroe, 40, a three-time All England champion who beat the Swede in one final and lost to him in two others, one of which included the legendary 34-point tie-break.

Both men are barely recognisable as middle-aged versions of the hirsute and headbanded youngsters of 1980, but they played extremely recognisable tennis, and in the sixth game of the first set last night they came as close to reproducing the magic of the tie-break as even the most deluded romantic could have dreamed.

As McEnroe served at 2-3, they went at it with the old verve and tenacity. McEnroe served three aces, saved three break points, and won the game with a wonderful backhand pass down the line, his shoulders still opening as he raised himself on tiptoe in that characteristic follow-through. Borg, waiting for his opponent's serve with his feet braced as if he were about to set off in a 1,500m race, returned with supernatural brilliance on both wings, causing the new US Davis Cup captain to stand and shake his head in rueful admiration. McEnroe won by 7-5, 6-4, but showing too much of an interest in that would be like standing in front of a Degas and a Cézanne and inquiring about the prices.

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